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The heART of Ritual


Flying Reindeer and the Fly Agaric

Santa and his fleet of flying reindeer can be traced back to a rather unlikely source: the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom, or Amanita muscaria, and various related Northern European mythology.

There is no mushroom more recognizable on the planet or one that presents more of an enigma than the fly agaric. It is widely known as the hallucinatory mushroom responsible for Alice’s trip into Wonderland. The active ingredient of the mushroom is ibotenic acid, a portion of which is converted in the body into another compound called muscimol—the substance that actually produces the hallucinations. It's use in hallucinogenic visions dates back thousands of years to those who live in the boreal forests of the north.

This Christmas, as it’s been done for generations, stories of Santa and his reindeer will be told around the world, including tales of how Mr. Claus flies around on his sleigh in the middle of the night delivering presents to all the good children while they sleep snug in their beds.

Legend has it that Santa actually derives from shamans in the Siberian and Arctic regions. “Santa is a modern counterpart of a shaman, who consumed mind-altering plants and fungi to commune with the spirit world,” said John Rush, an anthropologist and instructor at Sierra College in Rocklin, California. “As the story goes, up until a few hundred years ago these practicing shamans or priests connected to the older traditions would collect Amanita muscaria (the Holy Mushroom), dry them, and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice. Because snow is usually blocking doors, there was an opening in the roof through which people entered and exited, thus the chimney story,” Rush told LiveScience.

In these same regions, reindeer also happen to be fans of Amanita muscaria and they seek out the mushrooms beneath the early winter snow. One interesting thing about ibotenic acid is that only a fraction gets metabolized in the body to form muscimol, the rest—about 80 percent of that consumed—is passed in the urine. Whatever it is the reindeer are attracted to with Fly Agaric, they have been observed licking ibotenic acid–laden urine as well as eating the mushroom itself. In fact, this 'drugged' urine will attract reindeer from far and wide. The Chuckchee people of Siberia have not let this go unnoticed, as apparently they themselves collect the urine of their Amanita-eating shamans!

It’s not too far-fetched to believe that a jolly, bearded man dressed up in a red suit and white trim for the chilly weather in the North Pole truly did hang out with some hallucinating flying reindeer. “At first glance, one thinks it’s ridiculous, but it’s not,” said Carl Ruck, a professor of classics at Boston University. “Whoever heard of reindeer flying? I think it’s becoming general knowledge that Santa is taking a ‘trip’ with his reindeer.”

“Amongst the Siberian shamans, you have an animal spirit you can journey with in your vision quest,” Ruck added. ” And reindeer are common and familiar to people in eastern Siberia. They also have a tradition of dressing up like the [mushroom] … they dress up in red suits with white spots.”

But many historians and ethnomycologists believe these details only mark the beginning of the symbolic and trippy connections between the Amanita muscaria mushroom and the iconography of Christmas.

In Greg A. Marley’s book, Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms, it is said that fly agaric has been a symbol of yuletide happiness in Central Europe, Russia and Scandinavia for centuries, calling it “a red light shining bright in the winter darkness.” Actually the old “cult” of Santa Claus and Christmas that has taken over America incorporates many traditions, including Christian and Pagan, Old Catholic, Scandinavian, Dutch, German and English. The late author James Arthur also pointed out in his book Mushrooms and Mankind that the practice of the Christmas tree, and the placement of bright red-and-white presents underneath, is symbolic to the conifer and birch trees that grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere and the Fly Agaric fungi that flourish beneath them.

“Why do people bring pine trees into their homes at the Winter Solstice, placing brightly colored (red and white) packages under their boughs, as gifts to show their love for each other … ?” he wrote. “It is because, underneath the pine bough is the exact location where one would find this ‘Most Sacred’ substance, the Amanita muscaria, in the wild.”

Many of these traditions were projected upon Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century saint who was known for his generosity, as the story goes.

Of course, you do not have to agree that the entire Santa story is tied to a hallucinogenic property. Either way, these legends of how Christmas came to be are a hell of a lot more fascinating than believing anything else we’ve ever been taught growing up. By Elysia McMahan

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